A bullish Sen. Dick Durbin said Tuesday he was “more positive than most” that lawmakers will reach a deal to avert the so-called fiscal cliff by the end of the year but made a plea to separate any major entitlement reform from the ongoing discussions.
The Illinois Senator and Assistant Senate Majority leader outlined the progressive stance on the ongoing negotiations to avert the coming crisis in a speech at the liberal Center for American Progress. Despite voicing firm opposition to Republican proposals to reform Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, he conceded that Democrats must engage the issue of entitlement reform.
“Progressives cannot afford to stand on the sidelines in this fiscal cliff debate and to deny the obvious: important critical decisions will be made soon that will affect this country for 10 years,” Durbin said. “I think we need to be part of this conversation which means we need to be open to some topics and some issues that are painful and hard for us to talk about.”
That discussions should not be wrapped up in the ongoing battle over taxes, he suggested, saying conversations about Medicare and Medicaid “should not be a part of a plan to avert the fiscal cliff.”
There are “savings to be had there,” he said, but not ones that compromise care and benefits to beneficiaries, which is what he suggested would happen under a plan authored by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan. Republicans are likely to resist any attempts to separate structural reform – one of their top goals – from the negotiations.
Durbin also said that Social Security has not added to the deficit and should be taken off the table in fiscal cliff discussions as well. Instead, he proposed the creation of a commission modeled after the Simpson-Bowles group that would find a plan to make the program solvent for 75 years and report back to Congress for a vote by the end of the next calendar year.
Echoing the Democratic position, Durbin said that the government’s revenue intake should be brought back in line with where it was during the Clinton administration, when spending and revenue both made up just under 20 percent of GDP. He pushed for more investments in both infrastructure and education.
One thing was clear though: the Senate is taking a backseat in negotiations. Despite the vision Durbin laid out in the speech and his call for progressives to stay involved, he repeatedly referred to the fact that the discussions are occurring between House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama. Durbin urged Boehner to seek bipartisan agreement in the House on any deal.
He had praise for some of his colleagues including Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Lindsey Graham, who said they would not be beholden to anti-tax activist Grover Norquist's pledge not to raise taxes. Durbin said their words were a “heartening sign” and “politically courageous.”
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